Memes, Genes, and the Evolutionary Mandate to Write

I’m fascinated by the theory of evolution. With some nuances that biologists are still exploring, it’s safe to say that as a theory for explaining the emergence and diversity of biological traits, evolution is unmatched. For a few reasons, I’m starting to think it has something to do with why I like writing so much.

I butcher an explanation of evolution by natural selection

Evolution gets very interesting as a theory when we apply it human social behaviors. If it’s true that the need for survival “naturally selected” many of our body structures, it’s also likely that natural selection has shaped emotional triggers and responses that are beneficial to the goal of surviving and reproducing – passing on the surviving genes to the next generation. Over time and many, many, many generations this process is what is supposed to drive large pattern-level changes in populations of organisms.

What evolution by natural selection means for human behavior

Some evolutionary biologists sum up human evolution as this process of acquiring favorable traits (intelligence, strength, health, etc.), surviving natural selective pressures (famine, sickness, violence, etc.) and then reproducing to pass on those favorable traits. As sterile as this sounds, it makes sense as a biological theory. It’s borne out by evidence and maps pretty well to our mating behaviors – we’re attracted to the physical and emotional traits that suggest successful reproduction of our own genes. Our brains and nervous systems reward us when we do find mates and reproduce successfully.

You might call this process of survival and reproduction an evolutionary “mandate” (that’s a metaphor, folks. There’s not actually an obligation in play here). If they ever live in doubt of not fulfilling that “mandate” to reproduce and copy their genes, many humans will feel unnerved or depressed. Just look at a typical love-lorn high school male or female. Or remember the last time you fell flat on your face with that person you like.

When a potential mate rejects you, it might feel as bad as it does because, from an evolutionary standpoint, they are rejecting your genes’ worthiness to even exist and continue in a next generation. On the other hand, when a mate accepts you, you start feeling great even aside from the pleasurable experience of reproduction. You feel validated, strong, purposeful, masterful. That’s also not a fluke. If the theory of evolution applies here, it accurately predicts that our emotional triggers will have evolved to incentivize us and guide us into this game of intimacy with potential mates.

Memes: not just funny pictures on the Internet

Genes are expressed and reproduced in tangible ways when they’re used to direct the assembly of cells, tissues, organs, humans. But they aren’t the only patterns that humans can use to reproduce. And bodies aren’t the only things that evolve: social and cultural patterns do.

We have ideas for that.

Or rather, we have “memes”. Zoologist Richard Dawkins coined the term, and no, it did not begin with funny, zany internet pictures:

Meme, n. an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture

So a meme, or an idea, is much like a gene. When expressed in action, a meme shapes the acting individual and the people around them, as well as their own chances for survival and reproduction. If Dawkins is right and natural selection is at work in the world of ideas as well as the world of physical traits (I think it is), then the best ideas – for survival at least – are the ones that reproduce themselves.

The evolutionary mandate to write

What’s special about memes is that while humans themselves can’t (yet) be the original source of their genetics, they can be responsible for brining memes into the world. And when humans themselves become the originator of memes, they are (or at least a part of them is) being reproduced in the world whenever the meme is reproduced or remixed or rephrased.

What does this mean? I’m going to suggest that you can actually get some of the same fulfillment from reproducing your own ideas, or memes, that you can get from reproducing your own genes with a mate.

Writing on the Internet, specifically, is an active and more or less permanent way to draw a meme out and push it into the world. Memes populate and spread quickly, especially once they are on networked machines. A single meme will spread far faster and have far more effect on far more people than a single gene reproduced. And I think we realize it. When we talk about artists pursuing “immortality” through their work, this is precisely what they’re doing. They’re expressing *their* meme, and (if they’re lucky) it will persist and infect other people throughout time.

We also realize the significance of our memes for the survival and “reproduction” of the contents of our own minds. I would suggest that some of the dread we might have at not having a date to the prom is the same dread held by people who have ideas who haven’t written them down and published them. They may have some fantastic ideas, but if they don’t take the initiative to publish, those ideas will not be reproducing. They will be naturally selected against, and they will die off.

So, naturally, when we sit down and write our memes/ideas out and publish them, we feel really good. Our ideas – and therefore we – have not won the evolutionary war, but we’ve fought the first battle. As as a consequence, we feel like we’ve been chosen by the prettiest girl at the dance. At least, that’s what hundreds of thousands of years of naturally-selected programming will make you think. At least, that’s how I feel when I write.


James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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